Tim Heidecker :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

There’s a pretty good chance that the person you think of when you think of Tim Heidecker isn’t the real Tim Heidecker.

Since emerging in the early 2000s with Adult Swim‘s Tom Goes to the Mayor, Heidecker has consistently and deliberately blurred the lines between reality and fiction on shows like Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, Decker,  and  Tim & Eric’s Bedtime Stories.  Even more disorienting is his long-running  movie review show  On Cinema, where he plays a character named Tim Heidecker alongside Gregg Turkington (best known for his own creation,  Neil Hamburger). It’s both a labyrinthian blend of meta-commentary and a hyper-detailed fictional universe, one that’s found the alternate reality Heidecker struggling with family life, substance abuse, and most recently, going to trial for his involvement in the deaths of 20 festivalgoers at the Electric Sun Desert Music Festival. Unless you’re really paying attention to the layered intricacies, it can seem like the guy’s actual life is a chaotic saga, rather than the stable, domestic existence Heidecker documents on his 2016 LP, In Glendale.  On that record, he reveals perhaps the closest representation of his actual self to fans, but  he’s not restricted to thematic territory musically: his most recent album, Too Dumb for Suicide, wraps up grim observations about President Donald Trump and the emergence of the alt-right in sunny, West Coast folk-pop.

This Sunday, March 4, Heidecker and Turkington host their annual Oscars special, streaming live on Adult Swim. We spoke to Heidecker  at the very end of November 2017 from his offices in Los Angeles, and broadcast our talk on the January 2018 episode of the Transmissions Podcast. To prep you for the upcoming live special, here’s our conversation, transcribed, edited and condensed for clarity. It may not make the real Heidecker completely clear, but it certainly digs into what makes his comedic illusions work.

Aquarium Drunkard: I find it really fascinating listening to your podcast [Office Hours] that so often people call up and they want to talk to you as a character, as Tim Heidecker, the guy that they are a fan of.

Tim Heidecker: Right. The only guy they know. The only version of me they know.

AD:  What does that feel like? What does it feel like when people speak to you as this guy who’s [only tengentially] you or a little bit like you? I’ve noticed that you will, in a kind way, explain to people…

Tim Heidecker:  …Not always in a kind way. [Laughs]

AD: [Laughs] Sometimes in a slightly more comedic way you’ll explain that’s not who you are.

Tim Heidecker: I think a couple of things there…if they want me to do something in character, it’s not something that I just can just easily call up. It doesn’t often make sense out of context. And also, I don’t find it interesting. One of the things I love about the show is finding out about other people. Talking to the audience about what they do and what their life is like and sometimes it’s interesting to see how that overlaps with my career and like, “How are you familiar with this stuff? What does it do for you?” That’s interesting, but if somebody wants just a catchphrase, you know, that’s not something I’m interesting [in] and I don’t think people would be interested in hearing that either.

AD: How long ago did you start the podcast?

Tim Heidecker: I started it over a year ago, last June [of 2016] cause my record In Glendale was coming out and I did no real budget or any kind of plan for marketing or promoting it. I can’t remember who I’d seen do something similar, but somebody was using Facebook Live to basically [host a show]. The whole idea of broadcasting live onto a big platform like Facebook was kind of new. I just threw up a piece of paper on the wall and just started talking to whoever would want to talk. I realized pretty quickly, you could see behind you, my rig that I built to put this thing out [laughs] — which is extremely complicated for how lo-fi it is — [allows me to be] able to take calls and have a couple microphones and play music and put that out into essentially an iPhone that’s broadcasting to Facebook.

AD: It’s a recurring theme of the show that nothing is working quite the way you want it.

Tim Heidecker: In fact, I had a guy from Feral Audio, who puts the podcast out in here for, I’m not kidding, over an hour yesterday trying to problem solve, troubleshoot a couple issues, and I think we’re worse off after an hour and a half. There are just certain things we’re this should work but it’s not, something’s not sending the signal back right…it’s funny because I am kind of a little bit of a gearhead. I’ve got a home recording studio and I have a certain tolerance for trying to solve those kinds of problems and getting cables out, DIY-style.

AD: But at the same time, it feels like the goal of the show is to connect with people. So despite the fact that sometimes it’s a little lo-fi or that somebody is talking on Skype with a bad connection…that’s not what you’re really after.

Tim Heidecker: I think we’ve always historically used the limits to our capabilities to our advantage.

AD: You launched it around the time of In Glendale, which I think is an interesting moment in your career. Because while you’ve done music for a long time, In Glendale  is kind of like the podcast, it’s mostly you, the real you. Was there anything that facilitated that jump into saying, “OK, I kind of want to be me a little bit more than a character?”

Tim Heidecker: I think a couple things. Naturally, in my life, my personal life, we had a daughter. My daughter Emilia, who just turned four. Having that experience gave me inspiration for stuff to talk about and sing about and write about that I didn’t have before. I’ve always written music and a lot of times it just doesn’t go anywhere and lyrically they’re just sort of placeholders or they’ll be, in my opinion, too sincere or not interesting or whatever. But I had written some songs that I was happy with that were also about my life that I liked and I wanted to pursue. At the same time, I checked in with the idea of, “Well this kind of goes in the opposite direction of what I’ve normally done, which is present this character to the small world that pays attention.” And then that became interesting to me. That felt like a left turn that I could do that would be actually surprising to people. [Laughs] If I continued to present this phony, or whatever it is we do, this artificial personality, when I’m doing interviews with Eric [Wareheim] or On Cinema or something, you know, that has the potential to get stale if it’s all you ever do…I felt it was interesting to break the notion of how I’m perceived, and knowing also by the way, that a lot of people will question whether or not that’s sincere anyways. Or not sincere.

From a cynical, or maybe from more of a cold-blooded practical, how do we make stuff that people pay attention to [standpoint], you’re kind of giving somebody like you, or a writer or a journalist something to talk about right away. [Laughs] It creates the conditions for not just your average rock band putting out a record.

AD: There were some standard review templates. “He’s being sincere, but only to a point.”

Tim Heidecker: Is the joke on us?

AD: One of the things I find really interesting and fascinating about In Glendale and the podcast is the relationship people have with music or art in general. We want it to be one thing that we can understand. If it’s a comedy, we want to know the rules, that it’s a comedy so we can laugh at it. If it’s a drama, we want to know that that’s the framework. But I don’t think life works that way. Moments are very funny and sad at the same time. And so it sets up an interesting parameter for you as a songwriter to explore this stuff with all of the possible reactions on the table. You can be funny and the record is funny…and it’s also not funny at all, you know what I mean?

Tim Heidecker: The music I love and grew up listening to had that stuff going in and out of it all the time. I mean, the Beatles were fucking hilarious. They defined a lot of my sense of humor. “You know my name, look up the number?” There’s a number of songs — forget their acting and movies and stuff — there’s just a sense of humor to it. There’s also Randy Newman, who I talk about endlessly, but he would just, on his great records in the ’70s, [he] would go from something very bitter or sarcastic or political and funny and go into this beautiful love song that was totally sincere. So the more I listened to that stuff the past several years, the more I felt like that’s territory I feel comfortable with. We do that a lot in our TV shows, we blur the line between sincerity and comedy and darkness. It’s all a big mess, which I love.

AD: Did you grow up listening to Randy Newman?

Tim Heidecker: No. Funny story. The first thing I loved of Randy Newman was his soundtrack, the score to The Natural. As a kid, I was like “That’s the best piece of music ever.” [Sings the score.] And then I knew probably, “I Love LA” and “Short People.” I was living in New York and my friend happened to be friends with Randy Newman’s son, John Newman. We were at a bar and I was like, “Oh I love your dad, I love your dad’s music.” And he was like, “Oh yeah, what’s your favorite record?” And I just got caught, I was like, “Gee, I don’t know.” He said, “You should check it out.” There’s a whole catalog of amazing shit, that he was, as his son, very proud of. I probably didn’t pursue it then, but I was reading this great little memoir by the guy in the Eels, that guy E. I picked it up, somebody recommended it. But he went into “Good Old Boys” and said, “I listened to it every day” and all this stuff. That’s a lot of times how I pick up on stuff: someone mentions being really consumed by something and I’m like “I’ve got to find out what’s the big deal.” So I did and it just created this [feeling of] “Oh my god, this is my favorite kind of music.” I love the stories, I love the sound of the records, I love the melodies.

AD: You do the thing on your records…[they’re] warm and there’s a certain kind of funkiness…[like] a Randy Newman record. I think it’s an LA thing, right? There’s always a little bit of…you kind of hear it in Zevon records as well.

Tim Heidecker: The songs are simple. All my songs are four chords. They’re just above a nursery rhyme. They’re not jazz. They’re not prog. They’re very straightforward. And so you get good musicians — it’s fun to give really good tasteful musicians sort of a simple song and give them that space to funk it up or add some color to it.

AD: Little things go along way in that framework. The newest record, Too Dumb for Suicide, you released these songs over the course of a year.

Tim Heidecker: Maybe a little bit more than a year. Since the summer of last year [2016].

AD: You were releasing these songs in little installments on Soundcloud [and Bandcamp]. At what point did you think you should collect them to make a record?

Tim Heidecker: Luckily the label, Jagjaguwar, my A&R guy Eric [Deines] — I have so many Erics in my life — they suggested it. We were talking about doing a new record and he said, “You should think about putting these out together.” I didn’t quite have enough songs at that point but I just kind of went to work and wrote about four or five more songs knowing that if we could get ten songs together it would be enough. [Laughs] That was great. I didn’t realize until it came out, that a lot of people aren’t paying attention every time I put something out on the internet. A lot of people were like, “Geez, I heard one of these songs but I didn’t realize there was a whole album of this.” I get that. People are busy. They are not listening to everything I do. So, I like the way it works together as a concept. It’s in one place. That’s one of the reasons — it was kind of scattered on the internet, now it’s a monument to kind of a dark, terrible period in American history.

AD: I think obviously your work is marked by a lot of bravery — you don’t seem particularly concerned with offending or upsetting certain people. But just from a personal standpoint, was there any part of you that was nervous about just wading into that muck yourself? Exposing yourself to whatever terrible thing somebody might say, but then also just the mental state of just living in this.

Tim Heidecker: It’s been unpleasant for sure. And it was much more unpleasant leading up to the election and after the election. I was very in the muck, in the swamp with a lot of these people who are just nasty. I had the choice to disengage from that and to not participate and I chose to get into it for awhile.

AD: You’re talking about online, alt-right meme weirdos.

Tim Heidecker: Just the Twitter trolls. I think that what it is, is it’s a very small group of men, you know, are very loud and very active on the internet. [Laughs] I mean, listen, were there fans of mine, Tim & Eric fans, who just think women belong in the kitchen and black people…that there’s a white genocide happening and that Donald Trump is the best thing to happen to America? I guess so. I guess there were a lot of those guys out there. Whatever. It’s not enough that I think it’d stop me from doing what I want to do. That’s not why, if something doesn’t continue or whatever, I don’t think it’s because we lost let’s say 3,000 people [laughs] from an audience. We’re culling the herd, I suppose. I don’t fucking want those people around. Because it’s not the set of values that I have, it’s not the set of values I know Eric has or anybody else I work with. I don’t know anybody who has a worldview like that. I mean, I do have extended family and shit like that, but the people I’m creative with, the people I collaborate with, it’s never been anything we’re about. But I do have a little bit of an inkling of the cross…a lot of our work has been, and continues to be very nihilistic. I think there’s this connection between that mentality and what we see from the alt-right.

AD: I think that’s a really fascinating area. I thought a lot about that…we’ve talked a lot, not you and me, but us as people who are weirded out by how strange the world is now. But we talk a lot about liberal bubbles or echo chambers. And I was really dwelling on the record and I think that your record exists a little bit outside that.

Tim Heidecker: Well,  there’s zealots on both sides. I’ve always considered myself fairly moderate and fairly my own mind, reasonable but the lines keep shifting and the things I would consider moderate now are very liberal and considered “communist” to somebody.

AD: The thing that’s so interesting to me is that I’ve tried, as best I can, and I don’t feel like I succeed, to understand a little bit of the alt-right meme online presence. But from what I gather — and I wonder if this is something you also feel — there’s not very often even a coherent political ideology involved in this stuff. It’s about reaction and provoking a reaction and it’s about, I think maybe a little bit, thumbing your nose at the idea of authority or decency.

Tim Heidecker: Or sincerity.

AD: When you hear a sincere Donald Trump supporter explaining their position, I don’t agree or find myself persuaded by these arguments, but there is at least a human face to them. Versus these, the kind of people you’re singing about in “For Chan…”

Tim Heidecker: There’s a sense of “nothing matters” nihilism, again, coming into it. Almost in the same way you play a video game where you just walk around blowing people away, you’re blowing people away with your comments. There’s some sort of satisfaction that comes out of that, I suppose. It’s pervasive and it’s been around for a long time. It hasn’t been weaponized in a political sense until very recently, but you know Eric and I…you mentioned Tom Goes to the Mayor earlier. The first week that was up on Adult Swim, the message board…”I hope these guys die of AIDS,” was like, all over that message board. Was that the “real” feeling of that person as they were writing it? I don’t think so. Some of it maybe, but a lot of it was “Ha, fuck this.” Just shitting on shit. Shitting on stuff for the recreation of it or something. [They got] some kind of enjoyment…some kind of empowerment from it.

AD: It’s weird that we’re in a position now where we’re even considering the political ramifications of the kind of thing we’re talking about. It’s nonsensical and absurdist and nihilistic, and I think about how all of those are tools that you use in your comedy. In your own way. Not the outright bigotry…

Tim Heidecker: I remember in the last election going into a Herman Cain chatroom where he was at and just fucking blowing it up. Telling my fans to go in there and blow it up with absurdity. With stupidity. Listen, was that appropriate? No. It was totally disrespectful to their forum that they were in to have that conversation. At the time, I thought it was hilarious because Herman Cain seemed like a lunatic. I made a whole album how I felt, Cainthology. So I’ve tasted that feeling of having the internet to do whatever…the other one was Dennis Miller. Me and Joe Mande went into his AMA and just sabotaged it with our goons asking ridiculous questions. I don’t know if I ever told this story, but the next day my agent called at like eight in the morning and said, “Dennis Miller’s trying to get in touch with you.” I was like, “Fuck man.” I felt like I was right back in high school and I just toilet papered the principle’s house or something. I just felt terrible. He finally called me and said, “Listen, man.” I don’t think he got what I was doing. He was just like, [affects a Dennis Miller voice] “Hey if you want to plug something, just come on my show. You don’t have to go and wreck the whole thing.” I just said, “Listen, I’m sorry it was a stupid thing to do.”

Most of this stuff I chock up to youth and these kids have the internet in front of them. When I was 18 I had a very early version of the internet and we used to do terrible shit on the internet. We used to go into chat rooms and pretend to be other people. So I would absolve like 70% of what I see online as something that in five/ten years those people are just going to look back and say, “Oh my god, I can’t believe I did this.”

AD: In a more serious way, I think you have a skill…you’re really good at making fun of Donald Trump.

Tim Heidecker: There’s a lot of material there.

AD: You’re really good specifically at zeroing in on, and I don’t have a great thoughtful term for what it is I’m trying to say, but the man-baby-ness. The entitled man-baby-ness. You play a character that is not unlike Donald Trump with Decker. The On Cinema Tim Heidecker, recently involving the trial, I watched as you bragged about the mistrial…

Tim Heidecker: I sent it to Vic Berger last night, I said, “Have you seen my press conference at the end of the trial?” It’s probably the Trumpiest thing I’ve done. He was like, “Yeah, it’s all there.” It’s not a straight impression, but…Nobody has been more influential to me than him. The way he’s just so incredible…the audacity of the way he communicates. It’s the greatest comic thing to happen in forever, that I can think of.

AD: In the mistrial, maybe the Trumpiest moment was when you thanked the Electric Sun 20, the [fictional victims]…

Tim Heidecker: The dead kids, yeah.

AD: You thanked them and said you wouldn’t be here if not for them but then you wished they were here…

Tim Heidecker: The backtrack.

AD: It was eerie. You’re not doing a straight Trump impression, but the thinking and the way you said it.

Tim Heidecker: The other one is, “Not really a lot of people to thank, I could thank myself.” It’s that overt, extreme narcissism. I was actually listening to Anthony Atamanuik today, who does the brilliant Trump impression on Comedy Central, who I think is fantastic. He was on Stern and Stern was asking him what do you do to get into that mindset. He was like “Always be defending yourself.” And of course, always be talking. Never stop to consider. If you look at Obama, there’s a tremendous amount of pausing, considering, finding the right words. Unless he’s reading a speech…but if he’s sitting there for an interview, there’s a consideration. If you look at most reasonable people…

AD: That’s the case.

Tim Heidecker: The Donald Trump brain is constantly moving, filling every gap in with delay tactics such as “this I can tell you” and “as a matter of fact.” [Affects a Donald Trump voice] “aaaannnnd” he’ll do this “and,” while the brain searches for the next thing. I love when he says like, “You know, we’re doing really well, and frankly, we’re doing really well.”

AD: [Laughs]

Tim Heidecker: He does that a lot. He’ll stretch things and the way he reads is clearly a guy who doesn’t have a great reading comprehension/capacity.

AD: Someone who’s pretty proudly bragged that he’s he’s not a fan of reading. He doesn’t like reading.

Tim Heidecker: We incorporate a lot of those little things on Decker, where we  would make a lot of my longer speeches onto cue cards, put them a distance away, so I had to really strain to read it. And also not memorize the lines. You can see me thinking particularly about what I’m supposed to say next, you know?

AD: How long have you been aware of Donald Trump’s existence?

Tim Heidecker: Oh probably since   I was a little kid. I remember my grandfather had  the Art of the Deal book. He had the Lee Iacocca  book and he had that book. He wasn’t going to do anything with it. It was the book for people who don’t read books. Something to put on the bookshelf.

AD: A book for people who don’t read books written by a man who doesn’t write books.

Tim Heidecker: Who didn’t write the book. So, I’d known about him forever. I don’t remember how I formed an opinion of him. It probably wasn’t a strong opinion for a long time. I think it that last election, when he started really going on Twitter, criticizing Obama a lot, and bringing up the birther stuff. He got nasty pretty quick and I used to do a standup routine and my sort of fake standup character would do a routine about him becoming president. This was in 2011.

AD: I think I might have seen that…you did a tour with Neil Hamburger and Clownvis.

Tim Heidecker: Oh yeah, in Phoenix, yeah.

AD: It was fantastic. You threw somebody out of that show?

Tim Heidecker: Yeah, well there was a stalker situation I think at that show.

AD: I assumed it was part of the act.

Tim Heidecker:  I might…have…that could have been another issue.  That’s something we probably shouldn’t talk about.

AD: But I get what you’re saying. [Trump] is a fascinating dude in that regard. But what a strange place we’ve arrived at, where we have to process this.

Tim Heidecker: I talk to some close friends of mine probably every day about whatever is in the news. Some text thread…and there is this feeling of “I don’t know what the fuck is going to happen,” you know what I mean? I don’t know what this is leading toward. It does feel like there’s no guarantee or certainty things are going to work out. There’s a hostile insane country, North Korea, that could fucking send a nuclear ICBM…missle to essentially anywhere in the United States. There’s a thousand of those little red dots on the map…Russian and China could look at the state of our country right now…it’s never been weaker, you know? I know there’s economic numbers that don’t indicate that. But the sort of weakness of character and weakness of spirit in this country seems like it would be an incredibly opportune time to make a big goddamn global move.   And who knows what else is gonna happen! I don’t know how the country itself stays together. So I think we’re all feeling this unmoored sense of confusion and anxiety.

AD: Does the art provide you some relief or solace?

Tim Heidecker: Definitely. The one thing is, for example, the trial. I don’t think I’ve ever been happier with something I’ve done. Just because, not only me, but Gregg and our director and our team that put that together…absolute, 100% self-satisfaction with the results. I’m almost never done anything where doing it, in the moment, [feels like] “this is fucking working, this is great.” I’m telling you, [with] everything we do there’s an immediate sense of, “I guess that was good? Was that?” There’s [always] a little bit of that. But not this time.    You know when things are working more than other things, where people are like, “Jeez, man, you guys really went for it and nailed it.” Hearing that from just about everybody that’s looking at it, is satisfying and exciting. We talk about it and it encourages us to keep doing stuff. And then the other thing people would say is “This was such a great analogy or allegory for this past year.” There’s this way to process in a way, and see in an alternate dimension, this evil character I play getting away with all this stuff. Not that it had this happy ending…

AD: But there was at least an attempt to hold this guy accountable for whatever it was he had done.

Tim Heidecker: And I just made a record I was telling you about that we’re still working on, but working is just the best. It’s so much fun when you’re doing it with the right people. It’s my favorite thing to do, whether it’s making music or TV shows, whatever, working is the best when you get to do what I do. I try to keep working and it keeps you off of Twitter, off of reading the news as much. Keep your hands busy, basically.

AD: I think everyone is going to be excited to hear [this new record].

Tim Heidecker: I think it will be neat to have the context of In Glendale and even the Trump record to then talk about something new. It’ll always be, “Well, I like In Glendale better.” And I don’t know where you were when it came out but yeah…I try not to make stuff where I’m paying too much attention to how it’s going to be perceived because that gets dangerous.

AD:  To wrap up, I wanted to ask you two more things about the Trump record. One, is the Paul Simon thing real? Did he deny [use of a parody composition]?

Tim Heidecker: I guess so. I don’t know if he did or his publishing did…I think he might just have a rule like “I don’t want Al Yankovic getting near my stuff.” A no parody rule. Which is stupid, who cares? I think it would have been a problem maybe, on another level, because I think I got the track, because I put it out so quick, I just downloaded some karaoke track.

AD: Of “I Am a Rock.” For listeners unfamiliar, this is for a track called “I Am a Cuck.”

Tim Heidecker: I did it so quickly. I wrote it in five minutes. I wanted to put it out right away. I didn’t want to do a whole thing by myself. So I just grabbed a karaoke track and sang over it. And then Vic Berger did the Garfunkel harmony and played the lead guitar because it didn’t have the hook in it for some reason. So that’s the true story there. Whatever. It would be nice to have it on there but whatever.

AD: And I guess in closing…J. Tillman, Father John Misty does a version of “Trump’s Private Pilot.”

Tim Heidecker: Just to remind everybody what the difference a singer can make. [Laughs]

AD: He does a version of that song that is legitimately show-stopping. Huge voice, I mean, it’s wild. What did it feel like to hear that?

Tim Heidecker: It’s funny. This was right after the election, maybe a week after the election. I was driving and I was at a stop light and I saw some notification. Somebody had said, “Wow the Father John Misty cover of ‘Trump’s Private Pilot’ in incredible.” I was like what is that about? So I got home and I didn’t know about it, I didn’t know it was coming. I found it on his Soundcloud. I went in the bedroom and I put my headphones on and I was like wow, this is a moment. I start playing it and it was like fucking chills. Just chills. The only other time [I felt that] was I wrote a song for Bonnie “Prince” Billy for the Bedtime Stories  episode “Sauce Boy.” I’d written this song called “You’re Doomed” and I asked him to sing it and make a track, because he can do all his own stuff. So he sent me this track and I got it and I was on set and I just got very emotional. His voice is unbelievable.

AD: We’re talking about two people will really signature voices.

Tim Heidecker: Just special, special pipes.  So anyway, I was listening to Tillman do this. I’d never met the guy, I was a fan of his music. And I was fully on the verge of full tears. And then I just hear my wife [shout] “Tim, Tim! Help! Help me! Can you come in here?” I rip the things off and “What is it?” [She says] “Emelia spilled milk and I’ve got Charlie here.” I was ripped out of this thing…I grabbed the kids. And I couldn’t get back to it for a little bit. I was like, “Fuck, I’m having this goddamn emotional moment.” But then I got in touch with him and we went and had dinner and realized why haven’t we known each other. I feel like I’ve known you forever. We should do stuff together. It was nice that he heard that song and thought, “Boy, I want to do my version of it.” interview/j woodbury

Aquarium Drunkard has launched a Patreon page, which allows readers and listeners to directly support our online magazine as it expands its scope while receiving access to our secret stash, including bonus audio, exclusive podcasts, printed ephemera, and vinyl records. Your support will help keep an independent cultural resource alive and healthy in 2019 and beyond.